Math Games for Young Kids

As the mother of a young child, I am aware of how our education system seems to start very young with the rote memorization and workbook learning.  Too often (in my opinion) am I seeing children being told to use flashcards to learn math skills instead of helping them see math as fun and something that you can do all around you.  Now, I happen to have a girl who loves numbers and I’m not sure if it’s because I do and it’s just natural or because we are always looking at them as fun and puzzles to be solved.

Given that we all want our kids to learn math and have a good number sense, here are some games to play with younger children to help them with basic math skills while also having fun:

War. Remember the card game War?  I do because my friends and I could play it for hours while it drove our parents bonkers.  Well, it’s your turn to go nuts!  One of the basic skills kids need to develop is the ability to quickly recognize numbers and also recognize relative size of numbers.  War accomplishes this by getting kids to realize which numbers are bigger (you can also play that the smaller number wins) and to identify numbers by items and by their numeral counterpart.  For the record, with younger kids I recommend taking out the Jack, Queen, and King – they aren’t intuitive and may just serve to confuse younger children.

Counting Cars. If you spend time in a car on a daily basis with your young kids, this is one way to use the time to work on number sense and you have tons of variability.  For my daughter, we used to count red cars because they were her favourite, but you can do anything you want in terms of counting.  You can count to a certain number, say 10, and then keep focusing on how many more you need to find, thus highlighting how numbers work together to make 10.  You can do what we call the rainbow car hunt where you have to find cars in rainbow order and increase a number each time (e.g., 1 red, 2 orange, 3 yellow, etc.).  It also doesn’t have to be cars, it could be lights, birds, trees, whatever your child is interested in finding.  If your child is more advanced with numbers you can try counting two sets of things to determine which you saw more of on the trip, or start a tally across trips to understand variation and statistics.  The options are endless.

Addition (or Subtraction) Go Fish.  You all know the usual game where you match numbers, but this is slightly different.  Get a deck of cards and take out numbers 1 to 4 (or 1 to 9 or whatever you want) for each deck, giving you 16 cards total (you can make it 32 if you use two decks).  The goal here isn’t to match numbers, but to create the number 5, for example, meaning if you have a 1, you need to ask for a 4, not another 1.  You can do this using all sorts of numbers and adding to all sorts of numbers, helping kids master addition (and then subtraction) while having fun.

Spend Money.  If you’re at the store with your child, let them figure out the money or at least the dollar part.  At first they’ll likely need your help, but understanding how money works is one way to make numbers very fun (especially if it’s buying something for them) while also understanding how we can use placeholders for various amounts (e.g., like how a $10 bill isn’t the same as a $5 bill – they are holding different values).  Bonus?  Your children may start to really realize the value of a dollar.

Number Treasure Hunts.  Instead of sending your kids out to find 1 of everything, send them to find or make various numbers of various things.  With winter coming up, see if they can make 5 snowballs or a snowman with 4 sections instead of the usual 3.  Send them to find 5 red leaves, 4 brown ones, and 3 yellow, then have them figure out how many they have together and which they have the most of.  If you live close to a park or have a big enough backyard, you can do these easily in an hour or two while also getting your child outside.

There are endless ways to incorporate numbers into our everyday life.  The key is to be aware of how you are doing this yourself and then make sure you are making your children aware of it too.  Instead of asking them to put their shoes on, ask them how many shoes they need to put on; instead of giving them the forks to set the table, ask them how many they need and let them figure it out; instead of playing games that are too easy (like go fish), make them just a little bit harder by including more math in them.  Making things a challenge or a puzzle for your kids also makes it more fun for them.  Math is everywhere and it’s up to us to make it a fun thing, not something our children dread, and that starts when they’re young.

By Tracy Cassels

March 01, 2020